I'm flying Copa Airlines to Cartagena with a 24-hour stopover in Panama City, the hub for the airline. It's an excellent opportunity to explore this city and make a visit to the world famous Panama Canal. Ideally, it would be nice to have a few more days to visit this fantastic city, but I'm not complaining. It's amazing how much one can fit into a short visit.
Panama City was founded in 1519 and has been known for centuries for its fusion of culture and commerce. As the gateway to South America it’s an ideal place for the traveler seeking to explore both history and nature. When you venture into the city center and walk the streets, you get a feel for the rich history of this city. Tucked amongst buildings that date back centuries, you will find modern skyscrapers, boutiques, souvenir shops and world-class restaurants worthy of exploring.
Here's how you can spend 24 hours in Panama City:
Upon arrival head over to the Panama Canal a marvel of human ingenuity. Opened in 1914, the 47-mile canal connects the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans and has been a major connecting point for international trade for over a century. It’s a must see on your trip. Head to the Milleflores Locks to get a view of how the canal works and see the water rise and lower, allowing massive ships from freight liners to cruise ships to pass.
How to get there: Book a guided tour or if you speak Spanish, take a taxi from the airport and get the history from your taxi driver. It will save you some money, and it’s always great to get a local’s perspective.
After watching a few ships head through the canal, it’s time to grab a tasty lunch! My recommendation is to head over to Saquella Casco Viejo, Italian restaurant, in Casco Viejo (old town), located across from the ruins of Compania de Jesus (a great stop for photos or selfie). At Saquella, they offer seafood, sushi, pizza, salads, and beef for carnivores. The menu is extensive. Diving into a seafood ceviche followed by a steak entree with fresh vegetables more than satiated my hunger pangs. The restaurant has a modern vibe and also makes the best Panamanian coffee.
Spending the afternoon walking through the centuries-old streets and touring the historic Casco Viejo is a surefire way to burn off a few calories. Casco Viejo was settled in 1673 and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Today it greets millions of visitors a year. Walk over to the oceanfront to get a view of the skyscrapers lining downtown Panama City. The architecture is a marvel to observe as you may find beautiful upscale residences side by the side with abandoned centuries-old buildings. This gives you an idea of the history of the area, which despite being culturally rich, fell into disrepair in the 1950’s and is now experiencing a rebirth. The afternoon is well spent browsing souvenir shops and art galleries.
I finished the afternoon at El Trapiche for an early dinner. The restaurant from the outside doesn't look like much but inside it’s large and many locals dine here. They have been serving traditional Panamanian cuisine like Ropa Vieja (shredded beef) since 1983. Plates of seafood accompanied by rice and vegetables were laid before me I realized I was famished. During dinner, a traditional folkloric show took place. The music was invigorating and the colourful costumes brought Panamanian culture to life.
Where to Sleep
After a long day of exploring it’s time to get some shuteye! I head over to the recently opened Santa Maria Resort, located just 10 minutes from the airport. This new Luxury Collection Hotel & Golf Resort, part of Marriott group of hotels, offers a respite from the hustle and bustle of Caisco Viejo while still being close to everything that Panama City has to offer.
The 182 well-appointed guest rooms are gorgeous and the property includes amenities like sweeping golf course views, a state of the art spa, and a fitness center. The lobby is filled with original artwork from Panamanian artists reflecting the history and culture of the country. There is a cafe in the lobby that serves the award-winning Geisha coffee and light bites along with sweet selections. Feasting at the breakfast buffet in the morning is a real treat as every imaginable delicacy is available from custom-made omelets, tortillas, and pastries to fruits indigenous to the country.
My only regret at staying at this hotel is not having time to enjoy the gorgeous swimming pool, gym, and the palatial spa.
The trip to is over, and I’m heading back to the Copa Airlines terminal for our journey onwards to Cartagena. After spending 24 hours in Panama, it’s easy to see why many visitors start planning their next trip back before they leave.
Parm is the Owner and Chief Adventurer at Planet Blue Adventure. She is also an accomplished author whose work has been featured in media outlets such as Trivago, Toronto Star, Travel Week, Travelalerts, and Tripcentral, just to name a few. She takes pride in using her love of travel, food, history and culture to craft stories that leave her loyal readers with a serious case of wanderlust. You can follow her adventures on instagram @planetblueadv.